The risk and rewards of giving a flock

If you’ve ever kept chickens, you understand life’s imperfect trade-offs of risk and reward in a more intimate way than most. And if you’ve ever medicated a chicken, you understand the delicate tipping point at which fear-fueled fight-and/or-flight teeters into resignation to fate. There’s something eye-opening about caring for a living creature so different from yourself.

We have five chickens, down from six after losing one of two Black Minorcas. In a gross turn of events, all needed to be dewormed early this summer. Turns out occasional worm infestation is a natural occurrence for many animals and a cost of freedom for chickens. Part of opting for quality over quantity of days and months and hopefully years. Exposure to the glories of sun and soil and air and grass, as well as the threats of bacteria, viruses, and attacks (oh my) from wild birds and animals. That’s the choice we made for them. Really, it was the choice I made because after the first visit from a robustly healthy red fox with loads of casual confidence, who lounged by the coop one morning as if expecting a waiter to appear with a cocktail and hors d’oeuvre, Stella wished to keep them locked up for their safety and her peace of mind. We had many discussions about the pros and cons of captivity for chickens, and never quite saw eye to eye.

As far as I can tell, a good life for a chicken unsurprisingly centers on a form of self-determination. It’s the ability to forage freely as part of an interdependent flock, and little else. It’s certainly not found in days spent standing in shit, whining and pacing. I know a thing or two about the human version of that.

One of our chickens, a Welsummer named Brownie, is so hard to lay hands on that during one pursuit, Stella brilliantly suggested we turn this chore into an actual sport. The thing is, this particular chicken never, ever seems panicked like the others. Just calm, focused, utterly determined, and highly skilled. Truly, Brownie could put the NFL’s most elusive running backs to shame. We’ll have her cornered, only for her to defy gravity by deftly leveraging wall-as-vertical-launchpad. You bend down, thinking you have her, at which point she will go up and over your useless hands with a quick ping-pong maneuver. Or she’ll pull a lightning-fast nutmeg and leave you in her dust, red-faced. Smooth as butter, easy as pie. That’s classic Brownie.

Out of desperation and exhaustion, we use sunflower seeds to entice and distract the birds, effectively luring them into a frenzied heads-down treat fest. It works or at least helps, most of the time, on all but the remaining Black Minorca named Floppy. She is Brownie’s polar opposite, such a flighty, untrusting bird. I struggle to categorize her as a “domesticated” animal, because she appears scared, wild, and wide-eyed at all times. In keeping with her old Spanish breed, she’s lean and aerodynamic, thanks to sleek black plumage and crackling, electric nerves. Floppy was named in a nod to her large, waving red flag of a comb, which flops over to one side, higher in the front and stylishly low in the back, a red beret on a soldier whose default mode is manic, all-out retreat. She is not brave, has zero dignity, but is impossible to capture.

The other Black Minorca, named Biggie and taken too soon by a fast-moving illness of unknown origin, did have courage and perhaps an inkling of a chicken version of dignity. It’s probably what did her in. She once flew up to the edge of the roof of our house. Claws raking and clacking against the metal flashing, she almost landed the ultimate perch up there, in outer space.

Biggie could also be found out on the sill of the window in front of my desk as I worked, side-eyeing me from outdoors like a peeved middle manager. Her fiery comb was huge, bright, and straight, and she was at least 20% larger than her Black Minorca sibling and all the other birds, from chickhood on. When an ailing raccoon languished like a furry drunk in the small creek bed beyond our back fence, Biggie did not leverage her apex status within the pecking order to lead the girls to safety. She stood at the fence and shrieked as if outraged at the raccoon, with the flock of her followers chiming in from behind her. It’s no wonder she was the first to go, but what a legend among hens.

Stella loves these insane chickens fiercely. She counts all five (six before the loss of Biggie) as members of her menagerie, which also includes her rescue dog Kansas, a mix of Border Collie and Corgi, and a Netherland Dwarf rabbit the color of chocolate and peanut butter, whom Stella named Reese. She observes the chickens closely, studying the emotive qualities of their changing noises and quirky behaviors in an attempt to understand. “What do you think she means by that, mom?” Sometimes I detect worry in her questions, sometimes pure amusement.

I have begun to think our flock was a well-intentioned mistake. Initially I thought it would be so fun and a source of daily interest and helpful work for Stella, perhaps even an added sense of purpose. But she is so attached to them, so worried about their wellbeing, that at times it feels like a trap. Like I’d set her up for a certain heartbreak, six times over. Stella’s depth of connection with animals, I realized, would make the loss of these feathered aliens more painful than I, decidedly not an “animal person,” can understand. She already lost two grandparents over the last couple years, moved across the country, and went through hell at school, barely making it through this last year.

We lost Biggie so suddenly. She became lethargic one morning, her once proud comb wilted, sickly pale, and blotchy–and died the very same day. Yet Stella handled it with more grace than I ever would have expected. She connected the loss to a graphic novel she’d read about a misunderstood witch who buries roadkill to ensure the animals’ peaceful transition to the next life. I would find out later that here were indications, in Stella’s writings at school, that the death weighed heavily on her.

In the aftermath, there lingered the possibility that whatever killed Biggie was highly contagious and the rest of the flock could follow. About a month after Biggie’s passing, all seemed well and I stopped worrying. That’s when our Crevecoeur named Bex, with her ridiculous poof of black plumage as signature look and anti-Darwinian vision impairment on top of her head, started “gaping,” seemingly gasping for air or struggling to swallow. Stella thought it looked like yawning. I knew it wasn’t. Could it be the same mystery ailment that took Biggie? Bex is Stella’s favorite chicken. Of course.

Coming out to open the coop in the morning, I would notice Bex with her back to the rest of the birds, standing like a statue in a world of her own, wind tousling her poof. This forlorn and ponderous chicken of French origin seemed to stare out into the woods mulling the futility of it all. No longer in sync with the shared flock mind, but contemplating the shrinking of one’s world that is prompted by the gaze of the other–what a truly disorienting realization for a chicken. I suspected gapeworm, but hoped for an existential crisis. I placed an online order for Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” and a goat dewormer that could be safely used on chickens with the correct per-pound dosage.

As a general rule, Stella needs to be reminded of certain fundamental daily tasks, many times over, especially in regards to self-care. But I never, ever need to remind her to close the coop at night or help me with the chickens’ medication. She does these things unwaveringly.

While we usually wait until evening to dose the chickens, by midday Stella will inevitably say something managerial like, “Mom, just a reminder to help me with the chickens’ medication today.” Then, in between conversations sparked by Stella’s many daily questions ranging from “Do people keep shrimp as pets?” to “Are we really getting out of Afghanistan?”, she will mention it again and again. I appreciate her persistence, because I admire her empathy for and dedication to the animals and because due to my lack of dedication to the animals I’d likely forget. The reminders keep coming until a specific time is selected or medication is in fact dispensed.

A chase ensues, causing serious questioning of my own dignity, until Stella picks up a defeated chicken, holding her securely under her arm like a football and grasping the feet together to avoid getting scratched by dirty talons. Hand over the chicken’s impossibly tiny head and covering her eyes, I open the beak with my thumb and middle finger, gentle but firm and holding fast until, as if some switch is flipped, the chicken accepts her destiny and relents. Using a dropper, and totally weirded out, I dispense the milky white liquid onto the bird’s pointy little tongue, ensuring the medication is swallowed and not aspirated. I let go, the now calm chicken contentedly swallows the dose, and Stella releases the bird who immediately pecks the ground and returns to chicken business as usual. This is how it goes–for all except the Black Minorca named Floppy. For her, we have to wait until cover of night.

Last summer, we had to break the flock of their sneaky habit of roosting up in a large, dense shrub at the edge of our property. But these days, come sundown, they return like clockwork to their coop. That’s when Stella opens its little back door, crouched down with her eyes at claw level. Stella can then easily grab a sedate Floppy from her roost and only then does a struggle begin, sharp dinosaur claws wildly flailing, beak frantically opening and closing, body and neck contorting every which way–some seemingly impossible. Then the usual process unfolds, with more firmness and determination on our part. We remind Floppy that we’re just trying to help her, goddamnit. That her life is at stake and we don’t like doing this any more than she does! She finally gets the message, relaxes, and our medication duties end for the day. It’s our turn to relax.

Their course of dewormer complete, Bex still gapes occasionally (of course) but she is acting “normal” and no longer lost in thought. She and the other chickens seem fine. The goat medication was likely their savior, not the refresher on existentialism, but we’ll never know for sure.

We both hated medicating the chickens, Stella and I. But when illness strikes, unavoidably, it simply has to be done. Maybe that’s one of the reasons that at the end of a good or tough day, white knuckle moments and all, keeping our flock is not a mistake. Just another sometimes hard thing with lots of upside, if you look for it.

To Parents in the Storm

I don’t write about Stella very much anymore. Not because there’s nothing inspiring to share, but for fear of crossing boundaries and exposing a person who is all her own. That said, I know that there are still parents around the world reading this blog because their baby or young child is facing challenges with feeding / eating or vision / sensory / development. I know many of you are terrified, just like I was.

Unfortunately, I can’t impart directly into your brain the sense of faith and relative calm I now feel having been through the storm. But I can tell you that when I see Stella eating salmon rolls and cucumber rolls at a sushi restaurant, I think of you. When Stella reads a chapter book and is totally engrossed and properly using her bifocals (!), I think of you. When she comes home from school happy and recounts an interesting or funny anecdote from her friend, I think of you. There were many days when I simply couldn’t see the way through to these moments. But here we are. You’ll get here too.

Now and again, we go back to our old friend vision therapy; since summer we’ve been doing about 20 minutes a day at home and 45 minutes a week in the office. We still work on persistent toe-walking. She has true academic strengths and she also has to put in more effort in areas that others (parents and kids alike) take for granted. I still seek out ways to support her visual and overall development. But I don’t feel crushed by anxiety anymore. It’s been replaced by gratitude. Partly because Stella is thriving, not to mention extraordinarily creative. And partly because we as a family have emerged from a sort of mental cocoon and emerged more vibrant as a result. Cody and I are full of confidence for Stella and she for herself.

For my part, I learned to stand up for Stella and myself. I learned that being 100% typical is boring–and probably impossible. I learned that there is always hope.

If there is anything I can do to share that hope with you, please let me know. There’s plenty to go around.


Crossing over




I am not a poet but


A short, simple poem came to me today. It emerged out of nowhere, after some rainy gardening. It also happened to appear amid ongoing efforts to stay positive despite a barrage of cold news. Stella still faces some challenges but is doing well. She just started second grade (said her first day was “awesome!”) and achieved 10/10 in 3D vision testing for the very first time recently! Trouble brews in several other of life’s spheres, but I’m feeling strong. And proud to be standing tall. Here it is, paired with the above (miraculously unfiltered) photo taken in the agricultural and floral showcase barn at the Washington state fair.

Autumn Garden

Sunflowers bow their heads
Necks tired
From following
Summer’s sun

Dahlias bloom defiantly
Hanging on
As if to say
“I am sunshine”


Something Amazing Happened at Disneyland.

(Note: This is not a sponsored post. I don’t get near enough traffic to attract Disney’s attention.)

In May, after our first three months of OT and PT with Stella, we splurged on a trip to Disneyland. We’d been worrying and agonizing about new realizations and a new path for Stella. We’d been working hard, with some really tough days, getting into a new rhythm with daily therapy at home. We needed to have some fun. We wanted to get away. We thought Stella deserved an enormous treat. So, shockingly, we did something about it. We up and went to Disneyland.

We stayed at the Disneyland Hotel, with watersides and pools for Stella, and an enchanted tiki bar for us. An excellent choice. I shelled out a little extra for a room on one of the highest floors. I was not paying for fanciness. I was paying for pure elevation. During a wedding-related hotel stay a couple years prior in Minneapolis, we were perched in a room on the 20th floor or so. I was struck by how deeply Stella enjoyed sitting on the wide, welcoming window sill and gazing out at the city. Her eyes scanned and rested, scanned and rested, and she took it all in. She enjoyed telling us about everything going on below. The hustle and bustle could be comfortably observed from above. I wanted to give her that chance again, this time with a view of palm trees and pools and the hotel grounds. She loved the view, even laughing at kids’ funny antics in the pool way down below, and the ability to see and know what could be explored. A very sound investment, if you ask me.

We are probably one of the only families in Disneyland visitor history to actively avoid interactions with Disney characters. We saw people waiting in very long lines for a picture with Minnie. Yet, when she approached our table at Goofy’s Kitchen, dread engulfed our table and we were tempted to pull down the proverbial drapes and pretend we weren’t home. Stella wouldn’t look her way, but gave her a no-look high-five. I chatted with Minnie for a moment, exaggeratively extolling her virtues and pointing out how kind and gentle she was, then she was off to the next table, and we exhaled. I know that Stella loves Minnie, but it was too much to be on the spot and face to face. One day she’ll have the confidence to tell Santa what she wants for Christmas and perhaps interact with, or at least not be afraid of, Disney characters. She’ll do that when she is ready. She loved the parades and waved to all the characters–again, from a distance that felt manageable, from the point of view of a spectator.

There are a million anecdotes I could share, but what stands out most about the trip is one ride, and Stella’s dramatic response to it.

I didn’t expect Stella to like this ride, which involves wearing 3D glasses, spinning through space in a way that feels unpredictable, and shooting at constantly moving targets. Because it’s a total sensory bombardment, and because we (foolishly) attempted a 3D movie not long before, and she lasted 15 minutes before we just had to leave with a very distraught Stella. But she absolutely loved Midway Mania. And for her, it was vision therapy.

Why did this ride work for her? She was engaged and motivated. She loves Toy Story, she loved the “game” aspect of it, she loved seeing beloved characters who seemed to be responding to her and cheering her on, she loved feeling like she could do it herself and, I suppose, be instantly rewarded by congratulations from her favorite characters and video-game-esque sounds and scores.

After the initial shock wore off and we realized that, seemingly against all odds, she really loved this ride, we went on Midway Mania at least eight times. Which to us was a whole lot. I often had to carry her in line, but it didn’t matter. When she expressed interest in going on that ride, we made it happen. We were shocked that she could do it and wanted to do it. Not only that, but her scores improved with each successive ride. The mere fact that she could tolerate the glasses, see in 3D, and play this fast-moving interactive game at all was beyond highly encouraging, but we didn’t really let ourselves wonder what it meant for her vision. We were thrilled that she was having so much fun with it. We followed her lead.

Then, for one fabulous week after this vacation and its highly entertaining form of vision therapy, I saw (temporarily–again, just for one week) astounding residual effects. Not bad for a grand total of 50 minutes (maximum) spent on a ride. For example, Stella had previously avoided talking to our neighbors, almost completely. And we’ve lived here in this house and neighborhood for a year and a half. A day or two after our return from Disneyland, while standing in our backyard, she talked to our neighbor for about 45 minutes. On her own. Cody and I were inside, watching from the kitchen, incredulous, watching the clock and marveling at what was unfolding. Later, the neighbor told me that Stella filled her in about every aspect of Disneyland, what flowers we were growing in our yard, and more. The neighbor postponed dinner and hung in there with her for so long–they knew how big this conversation was. We all did. At school that week, Stella’s teacher remarked on how well-rested Stella seemed, how she was not getting frustrated like she used to. Her occupational therapist noticed (without our prompting or telling her about the ride or any changes we’d noticed) that Stella seemed more regulated, and more aware of and interested in people, noises, and activities around us. It’s not that Stella doesn’t notice anything usually. She does! She hears everything, for starters. But she just doesn’t always slow down, remark on, and engage us about them. She just seemed more in tune with a bigger share of the world around her.

As Stella’s developmental optometrist explained it amid a much longer and more helpful description, so much of Stella’s mental energy goes into a conscious effort to simply keep her eyes straight. Interpreting and reacting quickly and gracefully to the world around you–especially the unexpected–can be extraordinarily difficult when it takes a large share of your inner resources to simply “see!” We believe that for that brief window after Disneyland, this was no longer the case. When her eyes were better coordinated without requiring strenuous effort, her world opened up because she could relax and take it in. It was a truly beautiful sight, and I’d seen flickers of it before, when Stella did vision therapy two years ago.

And so, two weeks ago, Stella began vision therapy again. For months leading up to now, we’ve been focused on building the foundation upon which vision rests, and that includes basic motor skills, sensory integration, and postural and primitive and reflexes. That work is ongoing alongside vision therapy. Yes, another crazy ride. We’re working hard to give Stella a better view of the world, but it’s more than that. We’re working to empower her to comfortably and confidently engage with the world, and without the urgent need to keep so much of it at a safe distance.


How do you solve a problem like IKEA?

Ah, the joy, elation, and shock that zinged through our brains when upon entering the giant maze, Stella demanded to go to the play area at IKEA. Smaland. We’d never even tried or considered it before. But finally she was ready, independent, proactive, long since potty-trained, and wanted to have fun without us, while we embarked on the sojourn that is an IKEA shopping trip. It was truly glorious.

As we signed her in, we were told in a dead serious tone that there is no jumping into the ball pit. No jumping. Into. The ball pit. A small pang in my gut. A spark of doubt that I instantly mostly extinguished in anticipation of kitchen shopping without herding and wrangling. Stella could hardly wait to get in there, and we had a kitchen to plan! It’s the heart of the home you, know, and duct tape currently holds our decrepit failing one together. We are on the verge of kitchen failure and no bypass will help. Only a transplant from IKEA. This procedure is urgent.

Ominously, the rule was repeated a couple more times as we checked in. Perhaps they noted Stella’s high energy level, they way she could barely stand still to get the prison sticker slapped on her back. Perhaps they knew that the rule was inhumane, and everyone needed to hear it ten times for the grim reality to sink in. Oh, also, sort of an addendum to the main “no jumping” rule: There is no going under the balls. The gist: Sit in the ball pit like you’re an 80-year-old enjoying a warm sitz bath, and you’re golden.

Stella was escorted into Smaland, and we turned the corner to catch a glimpse of her behind the glass. She was already in the ball pit by the time we turned the corner. I saw her get out, look around surreptitiously, and execute a very timid jump. Trouble. But also, not my problem. I noted a small foot peeking up through the balls next to Stella. In that corner of Smaland, she’d find her people. They would likely band together and stage a coup, which is a character-building, free-range activity. So, off we went to look at eco-friendly and eco-unfriendly countertops and high-gloss cabinets and to discuss the merits of single- versus double-basin sinks of different gauges.

In the meantime, we chatted with a couple people. A countertop guy and a kitchen expert. Like, we really conversed with them instead of pretending to listen while fake-nodding and monitoring Stella the climber. Before we could even decide on anything–perhaps we were too giddy to focus–the buzzer was going off and it was the first time in my life I could identify with Cinderella. Our cart was about to turn into a pumpkin! Oh the relentlessness of the clock! We must run, run, run to Smaland before our child turned into a mouse, or something!

The matronly gatekeeper solemnly informed us that Stella had jumped into the ball pit, and been temporarily removed, TWICE. Later, I asked Stella what they said to her, in an attempt to glean some indication of how the staff handles rule-breakers. Are they angry and mean? Are they calm but firm? In response to my simply stated question, Stella dropped her shoulders, head, and voice, looking at the floor and saying slowly and in a resigned tone, “No jumping in the balls.” Fair enough, IKEA. Fair enough.

Some quick googling will reveal that the “no jumping” rule is either new, or not universal. Here is an image, from IKEA’s Swedish site (the home site!), showing a girl at the tail end of what is clearly  a jump into the ball pit! Apparently in the U.S. as recently as 2006, as one blog post I found revealed, it was not only okay to jump into the ball pit, but encouraged by design! Other more recent blogs share tales of woe, stories of reprimand, lamenting jumping ban. For example, see the extremely aptly named post, “No Jumping In the Pit?!?!

It’s obvious and business as usual, isn’t it? Someone got hurt in the past few years. Hopefully not maimed. Their family sued IKEA, and now no child in our entire country can jump into Smaland’s ball pits ever again. Apparently, a waiver is not enough. Only total censorship of enjoyable activity will do. But does it really make kids safer? Doubtful. Kids are actually not walking bags of rocks. They are smart, and can figure things out. They can learn to watch out for other kids. They can communicate with each other and work out ways of jumping in without landing on each other. The Smaland staff probably have to invest a lot more time and energy monitoring the ball pit, and scolding kids for jumping from what is literally a one-inch height into the ball pit. Oh yeah, I forgot–you’re supposed to “slide in.” Oh wait–there’s no slide. All around, it’s a slap in the face of fun and, frankly, a dumbing down of childhood.

Yes, I’m making a big deal out of nothing. But perhaps I wouldn’t care so much if this rule wasn’t part of a really lame epidemic of risk phobia that results in kids’ independence and activity being severely limited. It’s sad. They are receiving terrible messages over and over again, along the lines of: ‘You can’t handle basic responsibility. You can’t figure this out on your own. The entire world is dangerous–stop moving so much.’ You could say it’s my pet peave, along with packaging. Equally oppressive.

Stella now refuses to go to Smaland. I don’t care how glossy my cabinets will be. Like a flimsy birth veneer, IKEA has lost some of its sheen.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Home

Back on October 1st, after a family vacation in California, a third birthday purposefully infested with ladybugs of the stuffed, cupcake and pinata varieties, and well-executed flower girl duties in Minneapolis, we moved into our first home.

We’d looked at about 40 houses. With. Stella. You get how astounding that is, right? As we drank champagne after getting news that our offer had been accepted, I realized I remembered frighteningly little about the abode we were about to drop almost all of our non-retirement life savings into. Because with Stella in tow, only half of my attention ever went to the house we visited. Maybe 60% on a good day when our real estate agent had luck distracting Stella with dandelions (God bless that woman). I’d say the record low was 15%, when Stella wouldn’t let me put her down and also insisted on snacking continuously. Try assessing property while holding a 35-pound human and balancing a small container of rice crackers—which, if they are food, are incredibly vulnerable and insecure, because they weigh nothing, are easily flung, and if you look at them the wrong way, they’re crushed. So, add the tasks of rice cracker protection and emotion coaching of a giant clingy toddler to the pressure of finding the right home and you’ve got a recipe for half-assing a momentous process.

I don’t think I ever opened a kitchen cabinet, in any of the homes we looked at. We managed to find “the one,” apparently mostly by gut feel. Way too late, I peppered Cody with hysterics along the lines of, “Was there some sort of weird pantry in the kitchen? Um. Doesn’t that place have a lot of road noise?” Sometimes my ignorance resulted in delight: “Wait. There are two bathrooms? And another unfinished one in the basement? Sweet!” And because Cody and I moved several times during our apartment-dwelling years and consistently failed to check on this crucial detail, with devastating effect on quality of life, I looked at Cody and he looked at me and we both had terrified expressions and no words were needed. We realized simultaneously that we didn’t know if the place had a dishwasher. It did. But a week into living there, we realized it was broken and we’d been eating off dishes that had been weakly rinsed in tepid water. Then we bought our real shared dream, a new dishwasher with features we never dared imagine after two years with half an ancient dishwasher on wheels that we hooked up to our sink all classy like. The new stainless beauty? It’s been sitting in the corner of the kitchen with the plastic still on the sleek handle, taunting us, because we simply could not hook it up to pipes that turned out to be corroded beyond belief. Water flow was restricted to the diameter of a human hair, then Cody touched it and its structure went from pipe to pile. Fixer-upper ownership is a rabbit hole of setbacks, with bursts of dizzying progress that illuminate how lame the rest of the house is.

This wonderful place with all its infuriating, fabulous potential was built in 1959, and has some classic mid-century style. And some of the ugliest 70’s light fixtures ever produced, and three layers of gross vinyl underfoot in the kitchen—held together by a seam of frayed duct tape. Those, for example, are the little touches most people pick up on during the search process. Thankfully there’s a lot to love. I adore the globe lights, the high sloped ceilings, the generous eaves that keep the place feeling cozy and protected in the rain. I love the beautiful wood floors with their new matte finish, and all the open space. We settled for a neighborhood we hadn’t initially sought out, and wound up with some very friendly neighbors who welcomed us with coffee, soup, and a My Little Pony. Score, score, and score.

Despite wanting so badly to move out of a rental that came to enrage me, I was shockingly sad when we did. Though technically not Stella’s birthplace, it’s where I became a mother. Its location, if not its living space, was to die for. My hope is that someday we’ll be able to afford a home we love in that neighborhood, but not yet. Not by a long, pathetically out-of-reach shot. That little blue craftsman is where for 48 straight hours my pregnant self worried psychotically about having eaten carpaccio, where I went into labor with Stella, where we brought her home for the first time, where she encountered and overcame painful feeding troubles (by now the sweet triumph overshadows the heartache), where she learned to walk and talk. From there we’d stroll to the park, cafe or grocery store down the street, once or more a day.

Stella loved her home, and we loved its location, but it wasn’t sustainable or financially prudent. It was small (too cramped to welcome family, all of whom live very far away) and dumpy and needed a lot of work and as renters we weren’t about to do it ourselves. I’d gotten to the point where I blamed that place for all my ills. It was unfair. Though I’m pretty sure the house could be indicted for crimes against Feng Shui, as in: Having to use a hamper for a closet-blocking side table and spilling my chamomile through said hamper for the tenth time (I just know someone smoked there back in the day because I could smell it when the floor got wet), a closet that made our clothes smell like a rotting consignment store, ten inches of usable (admittedly cluttered) kitchen counter space, the need to again clean any pot or pan to remove possibly lead-containing wood-paint dust before use (though it did add a nice smokey flavor to stews), wanting to have people over but always refraining due to over-the-top insecurity about the burnt vinyl floor that looked disgustingly dirty even when clean, worn raw floorboards that creaked maniacally, and menacing plaster that appeared to bubble and drip from the walls like sad lava. We’d worked hard and saved money and we were tired. Mainly from the parenting demands of toddlerhood, but also from challenges including eye patches. Sheer exhaustion that threatened to eat us whole. Especially given a completely lack of grandparents, aunts and uncles around to help with Stella, we knew we needed more of a refuge. A place we could make work for us, and provide comfort for us. We’re still tired, because of all the DIY needed around here, but Cody and I are more hopeful and less stuck now. And there’s something energizing about that. Stella is witnessing our efforts to build, improve, and create something we’re proud of. That’s got to be better than hearing her mom yell at utensil drawers with road-rage intensity.

There’s a bit of an underdog element to the story of our first home. We beat out four or five other offers, two of them all cash, thanks mostly to a pre-inspection and partly (maybe?)  to a letter I wrote. The elderly owner had died, and his children wanted to sell the house as quickly as possible, preferably to a family. We served up a very solid down payment, excellent credit scores, and a pre-inspection that told them that we weren’t going to back out. Of course, I like to think that my writing helped us get this house, not just through earnings that helped make the down payment possible but by sheer force of charm and skill. I love that there is now a bit of legend associated with the purchase, a tale I can flagrantly exaggerate as the years pass.

We’ll overlook the fact that 10% of our renovation budget was spent removing dead trees–one of which fell on our neighbor’s house two hours after we officially took ownership. That’s right, 120 minutes in. A month before we even lived there. Turns out several trees, about 60 feet tall, were suffocated by swarms of ivy. But. While we were told that a new roof was in order, and so we’d mentally allocated thousands to that cause, a well-regarded roofer told us we had five to ten years on our current roof. It seemed to balance out. The kitchen needs to be replaced, though the footprint can remain just about the same so maybe that will downgrade it from outrageously expensive to mindblowingly pricey. The decrepit main bathroom features metallic wallpaper with “exotic” topless women in a tropical setting. While far less tantalizing, the master bath also needs to be completely updated as well. The toilet in there is frumpy. Cheesy, too. I didn’t think this was possible, but it’s the toilet version of a boxy Christmas cardigan with snowmen around the mid-section.  It’s way wider and dumber than any toilet I’ve ever seen and whoever designed it should be ashamed.

Whenever the toilet gets to me, or I feel like this was too much to take on, I think about those two cash offers and how they saw the value but in the end were told to suck it. And I smile. This place was a good find. We’ve painted. We’ve replaced some doors. The electrical has been completely updated. Cody is re-plumbing the place, and one day, we’ll throw a party to welcome our new dishwasher. After a tutorial from my dad during my parents’ visit, Cody replaced the windows. My dad got rid of an exterior door, transforming a previously unused area of the kitchen into a space for what I supposed you’d call a breakfast nook—you know, with a booth. We got rid of fabulously horrendous wallpaper, so gloriously bad that I felt a tinge of remorse. That stuff had balls. The original oak floors look new. There are sky lights in the kitchen that make gray Seattle days a bit brighter. Several times, Stella has caught sight of the moon through them with the excitement of someone who discovered it for the very first time, and in those moments I feel 100% sure we made the right decision.

While the location isn’t my first or even second choice, it’s convenient and in-city, and the upside is immense. Stella took some convincing, however. Of course. This is a big adjustment and when we feel dead tired for no reason we blame it on the stress of moving. Stella was going to have an adjustment period, we knew. During the transition, she was “off.” She wasn’t herself. Very emotionally volatile, and I even saw her eyes cross once–with her glasses on. Stella was stressed out. And no wonder, as she began her first foray into preschool just before the move. During a visit from grandparents, Stella hit rock bottom. A traffic-laden ride home was the last straw on the camel of a rocky day, and she threw the biggest tantrum I can recall. Ever. The screaming was so intense, so visceral, that I started to think something was seriously wrong.  Like medically and/or mentally.  I frantically scanned my brain to figure it out. And then Stella yelled, in pained fashion, at the top of her overworked lungs: “I WANT TO GO TO THE OLD HOUSE!” Oh.

That was weeks ago. Since then, she’s mentioned the old house several times. Stella’s vision has been assessed and is fine. Her toe-walking is still increased, after having been reduced with help from vision therapy, but she’s definitely herself again. Stella is currently hooked on red beans and satsumas. She is incredibly sweet. She frequently tells us she loves us, she enjoys school, friends, and gymnastics, and delights in everything about Christmas, even the otherwise forgotten paper ornament at the back of the tree. By now we’ve decorated (partially), developed new rhythms and pathways and chasing rituals, walked to the nearby school playground in zig zags, taken the bus to the store, and put up a Christmas tree–and then another tiny tree just for Stella. We got a pair of alien-looking, yet clearly very comforting (to Stella) night lights for her new room that she loves. We made, frosted, and ate cookies, patted pizza dough, cleaned up the yard leaf by leaf, snuggled up and read dozens upon dozens of new and old books. We’ve done the million little things that make a place feel cozy, happy, and familiar—even houses with oozing walls, splinter floors, and style-challenged toilets.

Just yesterday on her way out of the kitchen, Stella suddenly stopped, turned to me, and said, “The new house is my home.” And that’s how it became official.

UW pre-optometry students to the rescue!

Stella, nailing "The Treat Game" with her assistant, named Baby.

Stella, nailing "The Treat Game" with her assistant, named Baby.

Stella knows how to use “WHAT!?” for comedic effect. At PCC, the natural grocery store we hit up to three times a day, there are fun sculptures outside. In reference to one of them she exclaimed, “A dog on a bike–WHAAAT!?” Just a sliver of a pause inserted. She went ahead and tacked on the prolonged “WHAT!?” in a flat yet exaggerated way, the timing and tone appropriate for SNL or In Living Color. Clearly, she’s a comedic genius bound for stand-up stardom.

As I’ve hinted at before, here and at Little Four Eyes, accomplishing our allotted daily vision therapy is a challenge. A grind. More for me than for Stella. In the way that getting up at 5 AM is challenging for a wine-guzzling nightowl. (I swear that’s not me. Usually.) I’m not the most organizationally proficient mom you’ve ever met–unlike my cousin who organized, within an inch of its life, the kitchen drawer that holds her young daughter’s dishes and utensils. To me it was an awe-inspiring thing of unattainable beauty. Honestly, I’m just happy to have identified a drawer into which I can toss that stuff from across the room, since it’s usually left open. When it comes to what needs doing in daily life, I get it done, but piles, toe-stubbing, sweating, and flat-out sprinting are involved. My creativity helps compensate, though. It kind of makes up for the disarray. I write fabulous copy for a range of clients in order to pay for Stella’s vision therapy and other stuff, and enjoy it, and I easily conjure up ways of executing or adapting vision therapy so that it’s somewhat innovative and actually fun for my two-year-old, who is quite young to be doing vision therapy in the first place. I find this type of work–the creative part of vision therapy, but not necessarily the execution–incredibly motivating and satisfying. Which is only natural, but somehow my difficulty seems much more severe than it should be. Of course, it’s not some horrible Sisyphean nightmare either. I believe in vision therapy. Though I struggle with getting it done, our daily work is incredibly valuable and effective, and Stella is resilient, adaptive and more cooperative than she gets credit for. Oh, and she’s creative, too! Using random objects like bulb syringes and blocks and ribbon, she’ll construct a tall, thin structure with a rounded top and say, “Look, mommy! I made the Space Needle!” And you know what, it really, really looks like the Space Needle. Clearly, she’s a brilliant engineer/designer bound for international renown.

Genius aside, when it comes to vision therapy, it really, really helps that she’s willing to step up to the very hardest challenges for a taste of Theo chocolate, made one neighborhood over from where we live, just down the block from Cody’s workplace and PCC. We often stop in for tastings, pretending to be tourists, though I’m not sure we’ve ever fooled anyone, even with our well-honed Boston accents, since we are loud, include a toddler wearing purple glasses, and head directly to the Hazelnut Crunch every time. In the context of “The Treat Game,” explained in my recent post at Little Four Eyes, she’s now grabbing two cards at at time so as to find matches twice as fast. Those red/green glasses just aren’t posing enough of a challenge anymore. Not when Theo chocolate is on the line. That’s my girl. But I know we can’t rely on chocolate. That’s simply the trick I keep up my sleeve. We have been in need of assistance for a while now.

As opposed to my mental lopsidedness, my sister is organized AND a creative problem solver. When I told her I was thinking of hiring someone to come here a couple times a week and help with our at-home vision therapy, she immediately suggested that I find an optometry student. I was all, “Brilliant!” Because wouldn’t you know it? We live right next to a giant university–WHAAT?!

So I got in touch with an officer in the pre-optometry club at the University of Washington and she kindly put out the word. I’ve received five applications from wonderful young minds! I’ll not only tell them everything I know about vision therapy and provide true insider information on to get Stella’s cooperation, but I’ll also throw in a pot of coffee and some sort of hourly rate. The peace of mind I’ll get, and the likely improvement in Stella’s outcome, will be worth it’s weight in Theo chocolate. Wait. Maybe I should pay my vision therapy assistant in chocolate bars? What can’t that stuff do?

And that’s not all! I’ve got a lead on a fantastic babysitter and zeroed in on a preschool that may just be ideal for Stella, due to its notably bigger focus on physical activity and fitness than any other preschool I’ve learned about. They have gymnasts and professional ballet dancers work with the little ones an hour a day–WHAAAT?!

Feels like we’re on the brink of being on a roll. We might even, after almost two and a half years, get some much-needed support–WHAAAT?!

Honestly, it’s not just Stella’s eyes that need the help. It’s me.


I quickly wanted to share the results of our fun photo shoot with Dave Estep of EstepWorks. He’s a friend, a former co-worker, and an incredibly talented creative photographer here in Seattle. Can’t recommend him enough. He’s so laid back and kind, and his happy brand of creative genius seems effortless in the best possible way. Honestly, I was so confident in his abilities that we really did minimal prep. We didn’t make ourselves look fancy, with the exception of Cody’s button-up shirt.  I made sure we didn’t clash and I put on a bit more make-up than usual (the usual being none), but I didn’t shower, barely combed my hair, and my jacket was covered in lint. But that’s us. I knew Dave would present us, as we really are, in a beautiful light. And he did. We’ll treasure these photographs for a long, long time. Thanks so much, Dave.

Check us out on EstepWorks’ blog.

In unrelated but also fabulous news, Stella’s vision therapy progress evaluation (this morning’s eye exam, after three months of patching and vision therapy) took place this morning. I wrote about it over at Little Four Eyes. I’m proud of Stella and her hard-earned progress, while also steeling myself for more hard work. We need to get that left eye up to 20/20. We can do it.

I’m off to make some more modern paper ornaments before bed. They’re taking over our home, and I like it. Happy holidays!

Christmas is everywhere. Even on our butts.

I frigging love Christmas. So does my whole family. Growing up, the season was filled with wonder, for reals, thanks to my mother’s amazing creativity, my father’s endless enthusiasm, and my (and my sisters’) borderline psychotic desire to BELIEVE. In fact, I probably believed in Santa until I was 15. I simply refused to give him up because that would mean less holiday magic, my drug of choice. (Wine is now a close second.)

To this day, come December, every nook and cranny of my parents’ house is adorned with enchanting and festive touches. Garland atop every piece of furniture. Lights on banisters, mantles and Christmas trees. (Yep, you’d best believe they have multiple trees.) The dishes, bowls and, well everything, magically become a holiday-themed version of  themselves. Goodbye, bland everyday pottery. Hello, charming snowflake mugs–I’ve missed you! Oh, is that an adorable family of holiday elves on the toilet? Why yes, yes it is. The magic even follows you into the bathroom, friends. If they could fit a small fir tree and holiday choir in there, they would. Outside, there are white lights on every edge of the house and all the trees within a half mile, except for one small concession. A small bush of colorful lights. That’s where my mother allows my dad to win one skirmish in their epic holiday battle of the sexes. White lights versus multi-colored lights. My mom’s Martha- and Jesus-like class and purity (all that is good and light) versus my dad’s gregarious, well-meaning but over-the-top garishness (probably representative of the crass commercial side of the season, and evil). Why, just this weekend at Target, I overheard a woman telling her husband, in one sentence with a dead serious tone and without breathing, to put down the colored lights we are doing all white lights. Clearly, too many colored lights will ruin Christmas. Thankfully, stylish, organized and unwavering women prevent that from happening.

So, obviously, I haven’t yet collected enough decorations to fill our home to the brim but it’s my goal, damn it, and every year I inch closer. There’s currently a full set-up of Christmas regalia on the mantle entailing faux-mercury birds, a small tree comprised of fake red berries, very large ornamanets, a handmade “PEACE” banner (warped by glue and exuberance) complete with glitter and monkeys wearing Santa hats, plus pine cones, the standard glittery Eiffel Tower, etc. etc. A wreath will be strung up over the existing mantle display as soon as I can get my hands on a sturdy wire ring, as I’m using the extra bows cut from the bottom of the tree to make a simple, fresh wreath with a silver bow. Atop the bookshelf, you’ll find the nutcracker versions of Santa, skiing with goggles, and Mrs. Claus, with wire-frame glasses and a tray of cookies for Santa, because getting them at every house in the world just isn’t enough for that tubby saint. If Stella and I can assemble and decorate a gingerbread house without eating it into non-existence, it will join those two up there.

There’s a charming German Advent calendar hanging over Stella’s mini red piano, homemade paper ornaments strung from the chandelier, and a garland with lights on the conveniently red hutch. In Stella’s room, we’ve got a tiny, sparkly pink and white bottle brush tree on her bookcase, one of those small fake trees in the classic burlap sack (needs decorating) on the little white table by her windown, and white and red star lights from Ikea swooping down over her curtains. Outside there’s the typical wreath (may add star lights to this–TBD) plus giant sparkly snowflakes and over-sized ornaments hanging from silver ribbon on the front porch. Lights will be added this week and it’s killing me that they’re not up yet. There are some holiday bowls in the kitchen, white with red snowflakes, but that’s it for that space. Sad, I know. But it gets worse, as there’s no holiday presence in our room or the office–unless you count my holiday spirit when I’m in those rooms. I’ll rig something up, though. I’ll make wonder out of nothing. Because, you know, as proud as I am of the Christmas decorating I’ve done, I’ve got a long way to go before I reach my family’s exacting standards for holiday magic. “You call this a tree? It’s only got 300 ornaments! None of them vintage! Chump!”

Now, depending on your holiday orientation, you may see all of this as paltry and pathetic, acceptable, or outrageously insane. To the latter, yes, it might seem a bit much. On paper! But in person, it just works. Besides, holiday magic isn’t something that can be worked out on paper. If only you believed, you’d understand. Only jerks don’t BELIEVE.

I’m overjoyed to report that, unlike all the non-believing Grinches out there, Stella has inherited the happy holiday gene. This past weekend, I hastily arranged just a few decorations to get us started–the Santa nutcracker and the mantle adornments. She breathlessly reviewed each item several times, saying things like, “Look at my Santa! He’s wearing goggles! Daddy wears goggles, too!” Yes he does Stella, at the swimming pool. But she and I digress. That night, after we put her in her crib, we could hear her sobbing and screaming, “I WANT MY CHRISTMAS DECORATIONS! I WANT MY CHRISTMAS DECORATIONS!” Indoctrination complete, I thought. I gave her a big squeeze and told her about all the decorations to come the next day. Worked like a charm.

We put up the Christmas tree last night, though it’s still naked because, sadly, all our strings of lights died of unknown causes at some point within the eleven months that passed since they last lit up our lives. Our pricey Nordman fir  (they’re huge in Europe) is supposed to shed less. Yet, naturally, needles covered every visible surface of our home by the time the tree took its place of honor in the corner by the large front window. Stella immediately referred to the needles as “Christmas.” She said, “Here mommy, hold the Christmas,” as she passed me two bright green needles, treating them like magic holiday fairy dust. Then Cody got on his belly to fill the tree stand with water. Which is when Stella pointed at his needle-strewn butt and exclaimed, “He has Christmas on his booty!”

Whenever I ask Stella what she wants for Christmas, Stella says, without hesitation, “Ornaments!” Me too, Stella. Me too. Our toilet isn’t going to decorate itself.

*Disclaimer: I use both white and multi-colored lights. Mostly white, though.

Random Observations, because I’m trying to post more often

Once in a while, Stella calls me “Amber.” Deeply disturbing yet hilarious. Though, it totally sounds like she’s imitating Cody. She’ll be in the computer room yelling, “Amber! Amberrrr! I can’t HEAR you! AMBER!?” Yep, sounds familiar.

We finally programmed her obnoxiously chipper, stuffed pal Scout to say “Stella” and her favorite color (green), food (ice cream) and animal (currently, penguin). You should’ve seen Stella’s face when she heard him speak her name for the first time. In the ensuing days, they’ve grown a lot closer. Stella’s all, “Finally I’m getting something BACK in this relationship!” But seriously, it doesn’t get much better than this. The toy now inserts her name and the aforementioned key words into songs–with superb awkwardness. If he’s singing about his “favorites,” for example, and it’s time to mention “green,” the twinkly boppy electronic music totally halts, a few milliseconds of silence ensue, then you hear the word in a slightly different tone than Scout typically employs, followed by a touch more silence, and finally the song resumes as if nothing happened. To me, comedy gold. To Stella, validation of a friendship that for so long seemed one-sided.

Is it me or does Mad Men induce heavier drinking than usual? I’ve been indulging in proper cocktails lately. A couple per night for the last few days–mainly good margaritas including only freshly squeezed lime juice, 100% agave tequila, and Cointreau. Oh all right, I’ll admit I had four on Saturday night (two glasses of wine and two very strong margaritas to be exact). During that same span we’ve been watching one episode of Mad Men, the best show ever, per evening. It’s not working out. Don and company make it seem so effortless and normal–hard alcohol on the rocks is clearly a natural extension of any meal, meeting, or fleeting frustration. Well, even my low (by comparison) level of imbibing doesn’t seem to mix well with my anti-depressants or early toddler wake-up calls. So tonight I’m drinking chamomile while watching Mad Men. After I finish this lovely glass of rose.

As you can see in my twitter stream, I kind of told “STFU, Parents” (“one of the 33 tumblrs you NEED to watch” according to The Huffington Post) to STFU. Because of this. And by the way, “STFU, Parents” defensively tweeted back! Now, normally I think that the funny person behind this site does a pretty great job of picking the most wildly inappropriate, over-sharing parents’ Facebook posts to skewer (such as pictures of poo, complaints about restaurants not putting up with their children poking other customers with straws and other horrible behavior, placenta-related horrors, and so much more). I’ve shared the site on my Facebook page and converted others–I embraced it! “STFU, Parents” reminded me to keep my own online “sharing” in check, and I usually clicked away feeling pretty damned good about my own parenting, as in, “Well, at least I’m not that idiotic. I don’t change Stella’s diapers on top of restaurant tables, and I don’t purposefully run over people’s feet with our stroller, so I’m fantastic!” But then, in my opinion, the site’s author/editor totally misinterpreted an innocent comment from a well-meaning and most likely very hardworking mom, and it highlighted the dark side of that site. I mean, you can see it everyday in the comment section–some people just hate kids, hate parents, hate, hate, hate! They take the worst of the worst parental examples and treat them as representative of all of us. (Did I mention they loath us?) The site and its rabid followers held this woman in utter contempt–someone who was really only saying, “Yes! I’d love to be as productive as these amazing individuals. Then again, I am taking care of little kids at this point in my life, unlike those folks, so I’m going to cut myself some slack.” The site and its commenters jumped to a much different interpretation: “This person thinks that the world’s smartest and most accomplished people are of no value because they weren’t PARENTS!!!” How they got there, I’ll never know. As they say in advertising, it’s a long walk. I’m wondering if “STFU, Parents” isn’t more than an angry mob. Less fun, and more fodder for parental hate, when all the parents I know are working their asses off for their families (inside and outside of the home), sacrificing and worrying like crazy, and doing their best to raise wonderful kids who keep their straws to themselves. It all reminds me of a giant sticker Stella received from a blues singer, who took a liking to her as he performed on the sidewalk in front of the original Starbucks in Pike Place Market. It reads, “Ain’t no time for hate.” True. Ain’t no time for twittering about stupid bullshit either.

Remember how in a recent, sad post I admitted to examining hundreds of photos of Stella to see if the little white reflections of flash in her eyes were symmetrically placed so as to indicate alignment of the eyes? Well, I realized today that in the photo that was mercilessly cropped in order to fit in the header of this very blog, the tiny bright spots are in slightly different places within each pupil. This may be meaningless. Or it may mean that her eyes were misaligned, though maybe just ever so slightly, all along (least since six months of age, at least). And the enigmatic nature of Stella’s vision problem deepens! My brain is currently yelling, “Amber! Amberrrrr! It’s time to watch Mad Men. Where’s the tequila? Where is it? I can’t hear you! Amber?!”